We planned our family vacation like most parents do. We scheduled days off work, booked flights, made reservations, bought amusement park tickets, and packed our bags. Unlike most parents, we also planned two practices with the help of CVG Airport, Delta Air Lines and The Kelly O’Leary Center for Autism Spectrum Disorders to prevent our trip from ending abruptly.
For families like ours who have a child with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD), a vacation-ending meltdown is a very real fear because you never know exactly when one might occur, what may trigger it, or how others will react – especially at an unfamiliar place like an airport. So, before going to Disneyland at the end of this month, we decided to familiarize our son Patrick with air travel through the SOAR (Starting Our Adventure Right) program.
SOAR lets families who have children with autism experience flying without buying plane tickets and taking off. When you arrive at the airport your family gets to test out everything from checking luggage and going through security to finding the right gate, boarding your airplane and retrieving your luggage at baggage claim. It’s just like the real thing, only the plane never leaves the ground.
We attended two SOAR events in anticipation of our trip to California after discovering the program through Patrick’s doctor. Most of our 7-year-old’s trepidation of flying came from his toy plane. He was afraid the real plane would flip upside down just like his toy does at home. He was so scared that he didn’t even want to leave the house in October when we told him we’d just be “practicing” at the airport.
One thing that really helped calm Patrick’s nerves before our first test run last fall was talking him through the process. Patrick appreciates knowing what to expect ahead of time. SOAR provided training and an informational packet with pictures plus a step-by-step outline of the day from start to finish. This made it easy for us as parents (who had not been to the airport in a while) to explain exactly how the day would go. It made our next airport test run in April much less daunting for Patrick.
Another big plus for our family was being able to board the plane. As soon as we found our seats, Patrick asked if he could go to the bathroom. We learned during our first practice in October that this made him feel more comfortable, so when he asked again, first thing, we were prepared. When we returned to our seats, Patrick was ready for the plane’s engines to start because he had experienced this before. On our second practice, the staff let us know that the pilots would taxi the plane across the runway this time. It was another positive step building up to an actual take off. Patrick watched the sights go by out his window without much anxiety or stress.
From of our two SOAR experiences we also learned things we can get better at before the real thing. We know there are ways to work with the TSA staff – like calling the TSA Cares Help Line at 1-855-787-2227 a few days ahead – to get ourselves through the security gate a little more smoothly while managing Patrick. We also learned techniques for adapting to unpredictable circumstances, like how to handle waiting in line for an unknown length of time to exit the plane for instance.
Our family feels much more at ease about our trip to Disneyland, and so does Patrick. Although he’s still a little nervous, he now understands exactly what to expect when we return to CVG Airport. We look forward to our vacation and are planning to provide feedback to the Kelly O’Leary Center for Autism Spectrum Disorders after we return home in June. We hope our experience helps inform other families and assists in training airport staff on how to interact with families who have a child on the autism spectrum. We highly recommend families register for the next SOAR program, which is scheduled for this September.
Editor’s Note: The Schinner family (pictured below) also shared their experience with the SOAR program on mom Amy’s blog. Read about their experience and find other tips for traveling with children of all abilities at mouseearsforeveryone.blogspot.com.